VERMILLION, S.D. | South Dakota reached seven football victories for the first time as a Division I program here Saturday, but the most pressing news concerned the health of its star quarterback.
USD blanked Southern Illinois 42-0 at the DakotaDome, improving to 7-1 overall and 4-1 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, but lost Chris Streveler to an injury on its first series of the game.
Streveler – on the watch list for the Walter Payton Award – left after taking a hard hit while running the ball near the Southern Illinois goal line.
He attempted to run off the field, but crumpled to the turf in severe pain before he got there. Medical personnel attended to Streveler, who eventually got up and walked gingerly to the locker room. Coach Bob Nielson said Streveler suffered an upper shoulder injury.
“I talked with the doctors and they didn't tell me we couldn't play him in the second half,” Nielson said. “They advised just because he was stiff there, they don't think it's anything major at this point, but advised us maybe not to play him.”
Fortunately for the Coyotes, they have a more than capable backup in Austin Simmons. The sophomore from Council Bluffs, Iowa, threw a couple of touchdown passes in relief of Streveler, completing 11 of 18 for 91 yards. The Coyotes went mainly to a running game after halftime.
“It took me a second to kind of get into the flow of the game but I try to approach each week like I could be playing,” Simmons said. “So it didn't really come as too much of a shock. I just tried to step in and do my best.”
Streveler came back onto the field in uniform and warmed up before the start of the second half, but didn't return to action.
“Chris is a fierce competitor, if we would have told him to go in there and the doc said he was alright he would have played,” Nielson said. “We felt we had the ability to win the football game with Austin Simmons at quarterback and we did.
“I think it's an upper shoulder type of injury but one that based on what the doctors are telling me right now they think he'll be back relatively quickly,” Nielson said.
South Dakota also had some success on the ground, accumulating 177 yards on 49 carries. Michael Fredrick and Kai Henry shared the duties, combining for 167 yards with each scoring a touchdown. Fredrick rushed for a game-high 94 yards on 19 carries and Henry tacked on 73 on 17 totes.
“We just wanted to give our defense a break, take some time off the clock and just really control the pace of the game,” USD guard Setson Dagel said.
The Coyotes bounced back from their first loss last week at Illinois State, getting off to a fast start with a couple of first-quarter touchdowns.
Simmons got USD on the board with a 2-yard flip to Brett Samson, ending a 14-play, 74-yard march on its first series. Samson hauled in his second TD pass in as many weeks on the third play after Streveler's injury.
Henry bowled in from the 1 to end an 87-yard march, giving the Coyotes a 14-0 lead with 2:49 left in the first quarter. Alonge Brooks then made a one-handed grab of a 17-yard strike from Simmons with just over two minutes left in the half.
Southern Illinois (4-4, 2-3) also lost its starting quarterback early in the game. Tanner Hearn replaced Sam Straub after Straub apparently suffered an injury.
Although giving up 402 yards, South Dakota's defense held a high-powered Salukis' offense out of the end zone.
The Coyotes were also without starting cornerbacks Adam Harris and Danny Rambo, who missed the game because of a violation of team rules. Nielson said the suspensions are indefinite but didn't comment any further.
Andrew Gray and Mike Johnson each had interception returns for touchdowns. Gray, in fact, brought two back on the same series but one was nullified by a penalty. Gray's 97-yard interception return – the one that counted – was the longest in school history. Johnson raced 79 yards at the 3:29 mark of the fourth quarter, putting a capper on USD's seventh victory of the season.
“That was definitely a weird span of plays there,” Gray said. “Obviously it was at the end of a long drive and we would have liked to have gotten off the field earlier but we'll take it how we can get it. They didn't score so that's a good thing.
“We all knew we had to step up and elevate our game. I was super proud of the guys that stepped in, they played hard and good and collectively we just all put in a better effort.”
Seven wins is normally considered the “magic number” for reaching the playoffs, but the Coyotes face a daunting schedule in their last three games of the regular season, beginning Saturday at Northern Iowa. USD then plays at No. 2 North Dakota State before hosting rival South Dakota State on the final week of the regular season.